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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   March 5, 2007, Vol. 96, No. 18   prev   next   current

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  • Editor: Ruth Stevens

    Calendar editor: Shani Hilton

    Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Eric Quiñones

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From dissertations to collaborations

Princeton NJ — When Caryl Emerson was a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin in the late ‘70s, she spent her days and nights studying an 1825 play by Alexander Pushkin called “Boris Godunov,” the subject of her dissertation.

Emerson went on to become the A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton, concentrating on 19th-century Russian prose and the Russian critical tradition, but she never put aside her fascination with “Boris Godunov.”


Princeton scholars Simon Morrison and Caryl Emerson are managing the “Godunov” world premiere project. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

“It’s a very complicated play,” said Emerson. “I’ve not stopped thinking about it for 25 years.”

Now Emerson is a leading force in bringing Pushkin’s play to the stage as it was meant to be seen in a grand 1936 production that went unrealized. Emerson and Associate Professor of Music Simon Morrison are jointly managing the ambitious project to stage a world premiere of “Boris Godunov” at Princeton.

The historical drama was set to be performed in Soviet Russia with a magnificent score by legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and direction by Vsevolod Meyerhold, an innovator in the theater, but the politics of the Soviet era prevented the play from being staged.

For Morrison, an expert on Prokofiev and his music, this is the second major work by the composer he has launched at Princeton. In 2005 he was the force behind the performance of “Pas d’Acier,” one of the great lost ballets of the 20th century.

Morrison was drawn to the score for “Boris Godunov” because of the eerily appealing music and the poignancy of its never being realized as Prokofiev intended.

“It’s a wasted score from the most productive and provocative period of his career,” Morrison said. “But the music needs the play to be understood. It’s built to wrap around the words, to amplify the literary themes of loneliness and alienation.”

The two professors have known each other since Morrison was a graduate student at Princeton. When he received his Ph.D. in 1997, Emerson was one of his dissertation advisers. As colleagues, they developed a close working relationship, since much of Morrison’s work centers on Russian and Soviet music.

As co-project managers, the two have collaborated to explain the beauty of the play and the music. Emerson has articulated the play’s symbolism and historical plot; Morrison has elucidated the significance and appeal of the score.

“To succeed, the project absolutely demands a Pushkin expert,” Morrison said, “because Pushkin’s text is quite experimental, an affront to theatrical convention.”

Emerson is beyond thrilled to be involved in the project. “This is everybody’s academic fantasy: What you care about when you’re sitting alone in the library becomes what everybody else cares about,” she said.

And even though she has studied and written about the play for the last 25 years — this year she co-wrote “The Uncensored Boris Godunov: The Case for Pushkin’s Original Comedy” with Chester Dunning — this production has still taught her new things about the play.

“A great text never stops teaching you,” Emerson said. “I reread it and see things I never saw before. A great work of art is like a diamond. It has a lot of facets and you can’t take them all in at once. And it never loses its luster.”

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